Q&A: Behind the camera of First They Killed My Father
English-born Anthony Dod Mantle, the director of photography for the upcoming Angelina Jolie and Rithy Panh-produced First They Killed My Father, has worked on films such as 28 Days Later, Dredd, The Last King of Scotland and Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won an Oscar. Last week, he took a break from a project he’s working on in Russia with Oliver Stone to chat with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about his experience working on the Khmer Rouge historical feature, an adaptation of the autobiographical book by Loung Ung.
Q: You’ve worked on several major films before. How was this experience different?
A: When you get dropped out of an airplane in the middle of a rice paddy in Cambodia three days before shooting commences – yes, it was different. I’m used to doing bigger films, and I consider this one in a way a “big-small film” or a “small-big film”. I began shooting the film on the first day with three or four hundred background actors on day one, [while] getting to know Angelina, who I didn’t know, and getting to know a whole crew who I didn’t know. I found her [to be] very much a sister, [and] I felt artistically very close to her.
Q: So with little time to prepare you were tasked in helping portray Loung Ung’s telling of one of the least understood episodes of mass atrocity in history. What guided your work?
A: When you think that probably most of the Cambodians in Phnom Penh had [not] three days but three hours to get ready to evacuate Phnom Penh . . . in many ways it was an allegory of something far more serious. So my problems were very middle class and gentle compared to what was one of the darkest unsolved chapters in world history.
On the prep subject, obviously Angelina had some ideas – and the film was guided by this extraordinary pair of eyes that belonged to Loung [Ung], the extraordinary girl on this journey. So what we decided early was to try and find a conceptual and practical way of as much as possible telling the story in a poetic and honest way . . . from this little girl’s point of view. From her space, from her head, from her eyes .
Q: How the hell do you get a camera down at that height and see the world from a child’s point of view when you’ve got 500 people in the front of the camera?
A: Basically, we agreed we had to work out [that point of view] and there was very, very little dialogue in the film. It’s like a poem an emotional poem so the camera together with the sound and the way we orchestrated movements and lights and darkness, that’s what the film is. When you see from a child’s point of view . . . tanks and soldiers coming down the street towards you when you’re in the middle of having a game of hopscotch on the pavement any world audience . . . knows how to understand that. Angelina encouraged me, and all of us, to stay very strong with that concept of experiencing it from Loung’s [point of view].
Q: How did you ‘do your homework’ in those three days to prepare?
A: Three days in a very nice hotel in Siem Reap surrounded by the films of Rithy Panh, [studying] on the internet and with books. Obviously, I knew historically about Pol Pot, and I knew about the American bombings in Cambodia. I hadn’t been able to feel the depth of the scar on a country like Cambodia until I arrived in Siem Reap. I just hope this film gives something back to the Cambodian people. My other experience of the war, as such, was one film, a very Americanised film not a bad film, but a very different film – The Killing Fields . . . But what was so beautiful about Angelina’s idea is that you’re trying to make this home-grown product. I think this film fits her oratory and her political profile more than any film she’s done to date.
Q: How would you describe the aesthetic of the film – given that as DP that’s where you leave your fingerprints the most?
A: Angelina and this film is so much about the camera and trusting gentle perception a restrained camera [and] a restrained depiction of violence. We all know how violent and horrific these years were in Cambodia. But the actual way we’ve done it is a very interesting task for any cinematographer It’s trying to tell something terrifying in as gentle a way as possible.
I think it would have been wrong if we went straight into extreme visual violence. It’s better to slowly unravel – [like] a child’s mind slowly comes to terms with the unravelling. A child is just observing and trying to understand what’s playful and what’s not playful. What are these guns? Why are people running? Angelina was very responsible for holding me back, saying “take it easy, not too much blood, not too much violence. Let’s try and control this gently.” I think she was right to do that.
I used to get shivers down my spine towards the end, emotionally, even though I was in a technical process. I would get shivers and tears in my eyes at the end and that’s very unusual for me. There’s something very interesting and sublime for me about the last part of the film. It’s metaphysical, which is what I think films should be and it’s very rare they are. It becomes a sensual, emotional journey.
Q: What words of advice do you have for young Cambodians trying to make their mark in the film industry?
A: If there’s one part of the world that has so many unbelievable stories to tell it’s Cambodia. For the young voices who of course want to learn professional technique and the language of making films [but don’t have access] then [they should] still get out their iPhones and begin to tell stories. It’s very important to understand that if you’re in a country where you feel there are stories to tell, to have the courage to voice [them]. The history of Cambodia has been about crushing the voices, crushing freedom of speech, crushing the eyesight of people. Now it’s a new epoch in Cambodia and there’s new people growing up and their eyes and their voices are strong and that’s what you need.
The world premiere of First They Killed My Father will be held at 6pm on Saturday in Siem Reap. Follow The Post’s coverage live on twitter and instagram at @phnompenhpost. The premiere will be followed by other, as yet unannounced, screenings around the country.